The Temptation of Power

Transcribed from the sermon preached February 14, 2016

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12, Luke 4, 1-13

When our group went to Israel we went down to Jericho, near the Church of the Temptation. We have a great picture of Zira on a camel with the monastery high on the desert wall behind him.
What we see in the wilderness this morning is the testimony that God gives us free will, and no matter what our circumstance, if Jesus is our guide, we have a choice about how we will act and respond.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
People will compromise their integrity when times get tough, when we are hungry. When we fear we will lose our bread, our material comfort, we will do just about anything. We will worship whoever can provide us bread, or the protection of our bread.
But Jesus responds, “One does not live by bread alone.” We also live by our sense of purpose, our desire to live righteous lives before God. If someone asks us to follow him or her, yet they are from a position of privilege and we are a common human being, we could have the excuse: well it was easy for him, he had everything. But Jesus resists taking advantage – staying fully human even as the son of God.
5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’
Here we have an image of the Devil as a great business mogul, wanting to put Jesus in power for return of favors. The Devil offers power, glory and authority. Again the devil tempts Jesus to compromise his integrity so that the world would give up their freedom and bow to his power, give him glory and authority. How difficult it is to resist the temptation of popularity, the promotion, the power to give orders and have them followed. And if we do it with the best of intentions…if we fight wars for freedom, for democracy, to stabilize or Christianize a people…because it is, we say to ourselves, God’s will, well then, the ends justify the means. Torture is ok, death of innocents is ok, rejecting children refugees is ok, as long as someone tells us it is on behalf of freedom or our God.
This is a strange guy we worship: whose only tactic is to love and gives us the free will and ask us to love too…but to love boldly, uncompromisingly, under all times and circumstances. That is it, all the evidence he gives. He does not sink to the temptation to employ power or violence to beget allegiance and obedience.
9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Here the Devil takes Jesus to the center of religious power, and tempts Jesus to prove he is worthy of being worshipped, prove he is the Son of God, by throwing himself off and causing God to send his angels to catch him.
How tempting is the daring, the bold and brash who take physical, mental or spiritual leaps and escape. They are our heroes. And then there are the fanatics, who, certain they are on the side of God, tempt others to sacrifice their lives to take other lives, to gain a special place in God’s temple in heaven. But here we have a story of another kind of bravery, another kind of faith that just stays steady and true day in and day out, come what may.
But Jesus will not use the power of the Temple, the Church, his religious clout and authority to make things happen the way he wants. Essentially, in these three rejections of the Devil, Jesus rejects using the economy or economic power (bread), the government and military power of nations, or religious authority to get his way.
I wonder if this story of Jesus in the wilderness reflects the broader context of Imperial Roman policy of political gain and pacification of the populace through bread and circuses? Certainly there is no shortage promises by candidates who know good and well they cannot fulfill them. But they want the votes so they claim they can turn stone into bread.
The Devil is pretty sneaky, so we ought to note that all his temptations are about Jesus’ status, about Jesus proving and receiving recognition, worship, glory, authority. Is he worthy of his title Son of God? But who Jesus is is not dependent on the recognition, power and authority the world gives him. He is going to be the Son of God whether the world considers him thus or not. Jesus stays focused on God. Jesus will give bread because people are hungry, not so he can be popular and recognized. Bread is good, bread keeps us alive, but we still have to answer the question what for? Why do we live? Once we are nourished by bread to live, how will we live that bread filled life? Will we eat bread and then lie and cheat and do violence to others? Will we compromise with the Devil to get food, notoriety and status? Or will be serve the God of love with or without those things?
So in the wilderness Jesus rejects personal comfort, economic, political and religious power and authority for the purpose of proving himself or becoming popular. It is his vision quest that sets his course. He does not use his poverty or his potential authority to compromise his simple message of love and justice. He will not stop or compromise his love. And in his integrity we see the son of God.
13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.